At intermission of the Broadway-bound revival starring Christina Applegate, I was picturing this review as something celebrating the return of the golden age of the Broadway musical. I was ready to declare that this production returns to us the joys of a character-driven, hit-song laden star vehicle and that the last great musical of its era opened not in 1959 with Gypsy) or 1964 with Fiddler, but in 1966 with this underrated and little-performed piece. I still believe all of those things, but I wish the creative team - and that must include Neil Simon, who revised his original book, and the late composer Cy Coleman who passed away last November and was closely involved with the production - had the same confidence in the original. In the second act, they make some significant departures that soften its edge and that will surely be controversial.
First the good stuff. What a joy to see a refreshingly new talent headed for Broadway ... one that keeps surprising us, makes us laugh but still touches our heart. I’m talking about Neil Simon, whose witty book is a great big reason Charity brings us back to the golden age, when Simon had a new hit on Broadway most every season. Even those who got over the classic lines of The Odd Couple and Barefoot in the Park long ago or are more likely to remember his bittersweet autobiographical trilogy may have forgotten just how funny his writing is. With Charity having spent too many years in mothballs, his older material is new again and his new material blends in beautifully.
And, speaking of underrated work, this piece is a wonderful tribute to Cy Coleman. I don’t know his complete oeuvre well enough to say that Sweet Charity is his masterpiece, but the score seems to embody the best of the qualities I like in his songs that I do know. Coming as they did just at the end of the era when musicals provided pop hits, several (“Big Spender,” “If My Friends Could See Me Now,” and “Rhythm of Life”) became standards and others (“There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This,” “I’m the Bravest Individual,” “Baby, Dream Your Dream” “Where Am I Going” and “I’m a Brass Band”) could have been. With the lyrics of the great Dorothy Fields, all are songs that help establish character, emotions and milieu yet still work outside the context of the show. New orchestrations by Don Sebesky remove the worst of the dated ‘60s sound of the OBC recording.
Can Ms. Applegate, known as a film and TV comedienne and preparing her Broadway debut (and apparently her first high-profile role as singer and dancer) fill the shoes of her predecessor, the legendary Gwen Verdon? Maybe not for those who remember Ms. Verdon, but that’s not really an issue. After less than a month performing the role, she sings and dances like a complete pro. Her singing voice combines a Betty Boop-ish high register with a lower vibrato that works just fine for the character. Her diction is crystal-clear and notes on perfect pitch (or if not she corrected instantly).
As much as Sweet Charity is a song and dance fest, it’s essential that we care about Charity, give her empathy but not pity, and laugh at her but not too hard. Ms. Applegate’s long training as comedienne serves her well. She can read Simon’s lines with such a perfect deadpan that you believe Charity has no idea how funny she sounds. (example: Waiter at the Pompeii Club: “What would Madam like to drink?” Charity: “The Madam went home. I’ll just have a beer.”) She does subtle physical movements like caressing Vittorio’s hat that earn laughs without breaking a sweat.
Ms. Applegate’s Charity, though, and this is a key to the route this creative team took, is smarter, more self-sufficient and way less pathetic than either the Charity of Shirley MacLaine or the title character of Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria, on which she was based. Where those predecessors were apparently fortyish and attractive but not beautiful, Ms. Applegate appears to be late-twenties and gorgeous. Her naiveté comes off more as inexperience than lack of intelligence, and her inability to find a more respectable life more a matter of underachieving than life failure. It lessens the edge. Even in her encounter with the movie star Vittorio Vidal (sympathetically played and well sung by Paul Schoeffler), she seems to be playing more of a buddy to him and comes off as less of a loser. He remains a gentleman to her and helps her escape from his closet shortly after his girlfriend returns, sparing Charity the humiliation of spending the night in the closet (as in the films). I should have gotten suspicious at this point that the writers were going to take a brighter, less shaded approach to the material.
Denis O’Hare’s Oscar firmly turns the show in a new direction from its previous interpretations. He plays him as a complete and manic nerd, winning a lot of laughs but never convincing us he’s good enough for Charity. (Would she really go out on a date with Charles Guiteau?) We only care about their relationship a little because it’s important to her and by this point, we like Charity a lot. O’Hare’s extremely broad performance threatens to overpower Ms. Applegate. Her many years of experience acting in front of a camera may not have fully prepared her for filling a huge theater like the Cadillac Palace, but O’Hare has no such trouble and the obviousness of the disparity between them makes him seem a bit ungenerous.
Ms. Applegate is more than generous to her co-stars, particularly the excellent Natascia Diaz as Nickie and Solange Sandy as Helene. They invest their characters with a lot of heart, playing “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This,” and “Baby Dream Your Dream” for keeps, as well as dancing up a storm. Ernie Sabella is a familiar and welcome face (and voice) as the boss Herman.
It’s odd, though, that in the early 21st century we would find producers and the original artists more timid and insistent on a less edgy, happier piece than the one they (and Fellini) created in the mid-20th. Without giving too much away, let’s say they conclude with a message of which “Sex and the City”'s Carrie Bradshaw would approve, and one which is quite safe in the context of contemporary thought.
Getting back to the topic of how well the current team fills the shoes of their predecessors, the biggest shoes may belong to the work of Bob Fosse, preserved in the film version. Choreographer Wayne Cilento has intermittent success. He seems to use a lot of Fosse’s moves, especially in the still overlong “Rich Man’s Frug.” (Fosse must have had a lot of muscle in the original project, how else to explain giving more stage time to this piece of music than to “Rhythm of Life,” for which the choreography here is rather uninspired?) I would like to have seen the choreography of “There’s Gotta be Something Better Than This” communicate a bit more, and maybe illustrate the girls' dreams. “I’m a Brass Band,” though, has some clever stuff, including a little drum and bugle corps section in which the drummers do some fancy stuff with their drumsticks.
William Ivey Long’s costumes capture the time and place with the colors but not the campiness of the ‘60s. Scott Pask’s sets are simple and effective and have some especially clever touches in Vittorio Vidal’s bedroom.
Even if it plays a little safe, Walter Bobbie has pulled together all the pieces into a satisfying whole, and his cast gets a lot of laughs while still taking the pain of their characters seriously. Though this update takes a softer and less unsettling approach than previous productions, it works on its own terms and the overall tonality may be more consistent. The peppy Coleman numbers always seemed to me a bit out of sync with the darker subject material, but they work together quite nicely here. (Fellini’s Cabiria would never have been a brass band).
This Sweet Charity is likely to be well received in New York and I’ll bet on it take the Tony for Best Revival of a musical, partially as a tribute to Cy Coleman.
Sweet Charity runs through March 13, 2005 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St., Chicago. Tickets, if available, may be ordered through Ticketmaster or any of the Broadway in Chicago box offices. For more information, go to www.broadwayinchicago.com. Sweet Charity will begin previews in New York at the Al Hirschfeld Theater, 302 W. 45th St., on Monday, April 4, 2005 with an opening on Thursday, April 21st.
Column Courtesy TalkinBroadway.com. Reprinted with permission.